Economic Botany

, Volume 64, Issue 2, pp 109–123 | Cite as

Origin and Domestication of Cole Crops (Brassica oleracea L.): Linguistic and Literary Considerations1

  • Lorenzo MaggioniEmail author
  • Roland von Bothmer
  • Gert Poulsen
  • Ferdinando Branca


Origin and Domestication of Cole Crops (Brassica oleraceaL.): Linguistic and Literary Considerations. Various attempts have been made to locate the area of domestication of Brassica oleracea crops (i.e., cole crops). Contrasting hypotheses suggest either a North Atlantic or a Mediterranean origin. In the absence of archaeological proof, linguistic and literary considerations can offer some insight into this issue. Expressions indicating a deep-rooted knowledge and use of these crops are present in early works of ancient Greek and Latin literature, while no trace of cole crops has been found in documents from ancient Egyptian or other Fertile Crescent civilizations. Most cole crop terminology used in modern European languages can etymologically be traced to ancient Latin or Greek roots, particularly those terms indicating the most obvious morphological feature of the primitive domesticated forms, i.e., the solid upright stem (kaulos, caulis). Celtic tradition is not documented earlier than the Christian era, other than in stone inscriptions, and there is no clear evidence of a “cole tradition” among the Celts. This paper gathers information from the linguistic, literary, and historical points of view that are compatible with the domestication of B. oleracea in the ancient Greek-speaking area of Central and East Mediterranean.

Key Words

Brassica oleracea cole crops leafy kales domestication linguistic 


Origine e domesticazione dei cavoli (Brassica oleracea L.): considerazioni linguistiche e letterarie. Sono stati fatti diversi tentativi di localizzare l’area di domesticazione delle piante coltivate appartenenti alla specie Brassica oleracea (cavoli in senso lato). Sono state proposte ipotesi alternative che propongono un‘origine Nord Atlantica oppure Mediterranea. In mancanza di prove archeologiche, considerazioni linguistiche e letterarie possono offrire qualche indicazione a proposito. Le prime opere scritte delle letterature greca antica e latina contengono espressioni che fanno riferimento ad una consolidata conoscenza e ad un utilizzo ben radicato di queste colture. Viceversa, i documenti scritti lasciati dalle civiltà antiche dell’ Egitto e del Medio Oriente non hanno lasciato tracce riferibili alla presenza di cavoli. La terminologia utilizzata nelle lingue moderne europee per indicare i cavoli può essere fatta risalire etimologicamente a radici latine o greche, in particolare a quei termini che indicano la caratteristica morfologica più evidente che avevano le forme domestiche primitive, cioè il robusto fusto eretto (kaulos, caulis). La tradizione celtica non ha lasciato documenti scritti prima dell’era volgare, se non iscrizioni su pietra, e non e’ stata tramandata alcuna chiara evidenza di una tradizione celtica dell’utilizzo dei cavoli. Questo articolo raccoglie informazioni appartenenti alle sfere linguistica, letteraria e storica, tutte compatibili con una domesticazione di B. oleracea avvenuta nell’area di diffusione della antica lingua greca, cioè nel Mediterraneo Centrale ed Orientale.



The authors wish to thank Toby Hodgkin and Lorenzo Costantini for their encouragement and advice and for sharing their bibliographic material. We also thank Francesco Tiradritti for his advice on the Egyptian chapter, Maria Garruccio and Helen Thompson for their help in providing bibliographic sources, and the two anonymous reviewers of Economic Botany for their valuable remarks and their contribution to an earlier draft of this paper.

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Copyright information

© The New York Botanical Garden 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lorenzo Maggioni
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Roland von Bothmer
    • 1
  • Gert Poulsen
    • 3
  • Ferdinando Branca
    • 4
  1. 1.Swedish University of Agricultural SciencesAlnarpSweden
  2. 2.Bioversity InternationalRomeItaly
  3. 3.Nordic Genetic Resource CentreAlnarpSweden
  4. 4.University of CataniaCataniaItaly

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